The biggest storyline swirling around the Philadelphia Phillies this offseason had been their need to sign a top-end starting pitcher. It looked like any big-time free agent signing would be as a replacement for the all-but seemingly departed Aaron Nola.
So when the Phillies announced on Sunday that they had agreed to a new seven-year, $172 million deal with their long-time ace, the focus quickly shifted to thinking about who the team might pursue in addition to Nola, not instead of Nola.
However, at Nola's re-introductory press conference on Monday afternoon, president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski poured cold water all over Phillies fans' dreams of seeing another top free agent pitcher don the red pinstripes next season.
When asked whether he considers the rotation set for 2024, Dombrowski didn't beat around the bush.
"Yes, I do," he said. "We have five starters that we like. I think when you look at some of the statistical models, we had the best WAR with our group of any team in Major League Baseball, so we like our five starters, and we look like we're set."
How much stock should we put into this answer? It's the type of response you'd expect from a savvy front-office veteran of Dombrowski's ilk. Even if he and general manager Sam Fuld are planning to throw everything at another free agent starter, you'd expect him to keep his cards close to his chest.
Ditto on the trade front, as well. If the Phillies are working on a trade, they don't want to rock the boat and open up a can of worms by naming names — either their own players or potential targets.
So, what leads us to believe the Phillies are still looking to upgrade the starting rotation, despite Dombrowski's comments?
Phillies' rumored pursuit of Yamamoto gets a second-life
Soon after the Nola announcement, reports began circulating that the team was still planning to pursue Japanese superstar Yoshinobu Yamamoto. The murmurs were first reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer's Alex Coffey, who claims a "source familiar with the Phillies' thinking said they’ll try to sign two starters this offseason."
The thinking is that the Phillies are so heavily invested in the chase for Yamamoto, who was officially posted on Monday and now has 45 days to sign with an MLB team, that they would continue to pursue him as their top third-starter option.
They even had Bryce Harper help out with the recruitment process, "... making a pitch to Yamamoto's camp ..." per MLB.com's Todd Zolecki.
Immediately, we all started dreaming up pie-in-the-sky type scenarios in which the Phillies would go into 2024 and roll out a starting trio of Zack Wheeler, Nola, and Yamamoto, followed by Ranger Suárez, Taijuan Walker, and maybe Cristopher Sánchez — they would likely need a six-man rotation to help Yamamoto acclimate to the grind of the MLB schedule.
And just an hour before Dombrowski made his pronouncement about the starting rotation, MLB insider Jon Heyman of MLB Network mentioned the Phillies in a post about teams looking for starting pitching. He obviously didn't get that from the Phillies' top man.
Is the Phillies' rotation good enough as is?
Barring another signing, or a trade, the 2024 rotation will look like the lineup above, minus Yamamoto. It may not have the same allure, but it's still a solid starting mix. That's assuming, of course, that Suárez and Walker can be more consistent and that Sánchez can prove himself over a full 162-game season in the big leagues.
It's probably good enough to get back to the playoffs. After all, they had the best WAR as a starting staff, as Dombrowski mentioned. But where's the depth to counter the inevitable attrition from a 162-game schedule?
They got lucky with Sánchez in 2023. They certainly can't turn to top prospect Andrew Painter, as he'll be shelved for the entirety of the 2024 season after his Tommy John surgery. They don't want to have to rely on a stop-gap measure, like Michael Lorenzen from this past season.
No. 2 prospect Mick Abel might be able to make the jump to the Majors in a pinch, but he's only thrown 4 2/3 innings in Triple-A Lehigh Valley. Griff McGarry, the team's No. 5 prospect, also made it Triple-A in 2023 but only pitched 4 1/3 innings for the IronPigs. Not to mention, he was still having problems commanding his stuff with a 7.5 BB/9.
While Dombrowski's original response leads you to believe they're done shopping, there's no way he and Fuld are finished trying to improve the team, especially after the depth problems they had with the rotation this past season.
Even though the roster seems solid, the Phillies are fully in win-now mode, and Dombrowski admitted on Monday that they "... will continue to look to see how we can get better."
An additional starting pitcher might, and should, be on the way.